Chances are, if you have a bottle of Worcestershire sauce in your fridge, you can look in there and find out who invented it. That is because it is quite likely that the brand you have is Lea & Perrin’s, and Worcestershire sauce was invented by a couple of drugstore owners named John Lea and William Perrin. And if you have something other than Lea & Perrin’s sauce in your fridge, what is wrong with you? You bought a knockoff! Many people have a hard time describing the taste of Worcestershire sauce or figuring out what it is supposed to taste like, so let’s get that part out of the way: It was supposed to mimic Indian sauce flavors.
The Origin of Worcestershire Sauce
The story of Worcestershire sauce starts around 1835 with a a guy called Lord Marcus Sandys. Sandys had been the governor of Bengel, in India, and had recently retired to Ombersley, England. He soon had a hankering for his favorite Indian sauce, for which he had brought home a recipe. Lea and Perrins, at this time, were busy making medicines, hair products, and any number of old-time drugstore type items. For example, they manufactured Dr. Locock’s Lotion for the Growth of the Hair. Sandys visited their store on Broad Street, in Worcester, with a copy of the sauce recipe in hand, and asked the partners if they would make up some of the sauce for him.
It is often claimed that Lea and Perrin already had a bunch of Asian spices and dried fruits, plus American spices and other ingredients, so they had everything they needed and agreed to make the sauce for Lord Sandys. This is likely, since they not only sold toiletries and cosmetics but also groceries. Regardless, they did agree and followed the recipe exactly, making enough for both Sandy and for themselves, thinking that they might be able to sell it to customers.
Now, exactly what happened next is not clear. There are several different versions. Once story says that they failed miserably to reproduce the sauce and Sandy rejected it, so they put the sauce in their cellar and forgot about it for a few years. Another versions claims that they thought the sauce was just terrible but Sandy loved it. So he took home his share and the chemists stored the rest of it in the cellar.
The sauce remained stored in the basement, virtually forgotten, until it was time for spring-cleaning and taking stock of inventory. They came across the old sauce and were going to pour it away when they noticed that it was smelling a lot better than before. In fact, it smelled quite good, so they gave it a taste and discovered that it had matured into a much more balanced and piquant tasting sauce. They encouraged customers to try it as a dipping sauce and it did quite well. They sold 636 bottles in 1842.
Lea and Perrin had not been unsuccessful before this. They had traveling salesman who would go around with trunks full of their medicines and other products, some of which were in high demand in the surrounding towns like Birmingham, and even abroad. Some of these salesmen managed to convince British passenger ships to put it on their dining tables. Worcester sauce (as it was also called in those days) became a popular steak sauce all across Europe and in the United States. In 1845, a factory was set up on Bank Street, in Worcester. By ten years time, they were selling 30,000 bottles a year. To this day, not much has changed and Worcestershire sauce is a standard, as a standalone, but more often, today, as an ingredient in cooking. Of course, being druggist, Lea and Perrin did not hesitate to promote the sauce as a health tonic, such as in an ad from October, 1847:
Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce…is acknowledged to contribute to health by its stomahic and digestive properties., is used and recommended by the faculty, and patronized by the nobility and gentry.
Worcestershire sauce was originally a trademarked name but imitators sprang up almost immediately, not only infringing upon the name but the actual Lea and Perrin’s brand. This happened both in England, and by 1876, in the US. Lea and Perrin went after these imitators with zeal, and were mostly successful. In 1875, they started putting their signature on the bottles, to ensure customers could recognize the genuine item. Curiously, the company used the alternative name Worcester Sauce in ads in Australia and New Zealand, and perhaps elsewhere. Given their desire to discourage imitators, this makes little sense.
By 1876, the High Court of Justice in England ruled that Lea and Perrin did not own the right to the name “Worcestershire” in regards to a sauce and that the others who were making a similar sauce with a similar name could continue to do so.
Ingredients in Worcestershire Sauce
Worcestershire sauce, at its heart, is a fermented fish sauce, made with anchovies. But it is given a sour piquant hit with tamarind. For most of the 1800’s the recipe was kept secret, and the labels only said that it was from the recipe of a nobleman in the country, namely Lord Sandys. It is almost certain that soy sauce was one of the main components, along with vinegar, and spices typical of an Indian garam.
In the late 1800’s, some recipes were published listing ingredients such as wine vinegar, mushroom catsup, soy sauce, salt, powdered capsicum, and pimento. One thing most of the recipes are missing is anchovies, and many of the ingredients seem to be an attempt at making cheap duplicates, without the use of fresh spices, fruits, or vegetables. Lea & Perrin might have been on to something when they complained about the fraudulent imitators.
Today, the sauce contains distilled white vinegar, molasses, water, sugar, onions, anchovies, salt, garlic, cloves, tamarind extract, natural flavorings, and chili pepper extract. It is aged in barrels for 18 months. The natural flavorings probably contain some type of soy derivative.